The potential impact of COVID-19 on agricultural activities in Nigeria are enormous, raising anxieties as the pandemic persists and ravages lives and economic activities across the states, leaving businesses counting losses daily. In this report, EMAMEH GABRIEL writes that unless lifelines are given to farmers, food crisis might be imminent.

Amid sharp drop in oil price in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, volatility, and high food prices, the duo tropics of agricultural growth and food production have been relegated to the background of national discourse by stakeholders in the agricultural sector in Nigeria.

This is coming on the heels of the Federal Government’s lockdown order in Abuja and some states of the federation, to check the spread of the deadly coronavirus currently ravaging most parts of the world, a situation that has severely affected virtually every human activity in the world, including food supply and distribution chains.

Consequently, stakeholders in the agricultural sector have continued to raise concerns over the fear of an impending food shortage and the need for the Nigerian government to intensify its diversification policy to prevent the country from falling into food crisis.

The rapidly evolving situations with COVID-19 are raising questions throughout the country as concerns continue to grow about the virus. It is not only wreaking havoc on the stock market, it is causing a significant downturn in the general economy and agriculture is not spared either.

Already the Federal Government has ordered the opening of its grain reserves, which in the first place are not adequate enough to feed over 200 million Nigerians. The fear is that, should the coronavirus crisis persist longer than expected, the country will be in for a major food crisis.

‘‘We must focus and take care of and protect our farming and food production while this COVID-19 lasts. A food crisis is already imminent and oil prices remain low. We must be unusually deliberate about guaranteeing food production,’’ said Olajide Abiola, a Fintech expert and farmer.

‘‘There will be global food crisis in the next three months, even if the pandemic is halted today. With lockdowns enforced here and there, farming, which is the basic to everything will be affected due to restriction in human and goods movement. Yes, even though food items are exempted from restrictions, the normal flow of people and goods have been disrupted, which will invariably destabilise crop cultivation,’’ Abiola added.

Concerns about the impact of COVID-19 on the national economy are likely to have an even larger impact on farmers due to movement restriction and other measures put in place by authorities to contain the spread.

Already the economies of some countries have been severely hit by the outbreak and it is likely that the most vulnerable of them might already be heading towards recession.

Nigeria for example, prior to this event, was also experiencing slower economic growth and there have been indicators, even from the Federal Government, prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, that suggested that perhaps the country was heading for another circle of recession.

Given that agriculture remains the best safety net for the country, agricultural experts and development strategists are particularly worried about how COVID-19 will affect labour availability, consumer demand for produce, trade deals, and supply chains.

They also say the extent of the impact on Nigeria’s agricultural sector will not only depend on how quickly the virus is contained, but also how the government fortifies the sector.

Indicators from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) in February this year have shown that there would be increase in rice and maize productions. But the fear however is that how can this be achieved or be sustained with the current situation in the country?

‘‘The priority is to keep the major lifelines and life support of the economy sustained. What do I mean by this? Oil price is no longer stable and imports have declined a bit, occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the time for government to rev up diversification efforts. Get the appropriate sizes and structures of resources into the hands of players in the non-oil sector, which has demonstrated strong signs of growth and huge potentials for contributing to the GDP and earning us critically needed forex.

‘‘We are talking about farmers, food producers and everyone in the agriculture value chain mix. We are talking about local manufacturing of items whose importation have been banned and there has been proven local capabilities to live up to the occasion with the appropriate support,’’ Abiola further told LEADERSHIP Friday in an exclusive interview.

To achieve this, the Fintech expert advised that, ‘‘bureaucracies need to be drastically reduced and there has to be some agility in getting things done on the part of CBN. It is one thing to enact policies and set aside resources, but the discipline, creativity, speed and integrity of execution matter.’’

How are all the players necessary to make the CBN credit interventions performing? Are the banks cooperating? Is FIRS processing tax filings timely to enable MSMEs to be able to qualify for these interventions? And are banks giving real players or portfolio companies access to credits made available? Asked Abiola, who commended the CBN for its numerous initiatives in driving the diversification urgency of this country but suggested a more robust initiatives backed by actions.

‘‘Without ample cultivation of crops, there will be inadequate production of raw materials required for food production.  If we are able to beat the pandemic into retreat before the raining season is ushered in earnest, we should be able quickly overcome the challenges of human and material disruptions occasioned by the pandemic,” he noted.

Asked what impact has his cooperative society made in food productions in the last three years, Olajide who also doubles as the Head, Credit and Risk of the Nigerian Farmers Group and Cooperative Society said: ‘‘For a cooperative and company that has generated over N3bn in turnover, employing full time and adhoc personnel of over 600, setup critical infrastructures in a rural community, setup one of the largest capacity rice mills in Nasarawa and has the single largest warehouse in the whole of the State amongst other things, without any form of grants or financial support from government or access to credit with any of the traditional financial institutions, the impacts are visible. We have demonstrated discipline, resilience, tenacity, productivity and patriotism.”

Nigeria had in the last decades relied sorely on importation, a situation that created huge forex deficit and punctured the country’s GDP. Advocates against the importation of goods that can be produced locally have said the outbreak of coronavirus has not only exposed the country’s vulnerability and potentials but has also given it another lifeline to look inward and invest both in human and material resources.

For the second time in 2020, the IMF had predicted doomsday for Nigeria. The projections had indicated that, the country is heading into its worst recession in 30 years.

With the outbreak of coronavirus, and with the chain of productions and supplies cut with no certain date for things to bounce back, Nigeria, like other importing nations have been cut off from supplies.

For his part, Mr. Retson Tedheke, an investor in the agricultural sector, opined that Nigeria must look inward and channel its resources towards mass production to save and earn the country billions in dollars.

‘‘We have not been able to utilise what we have as a country. A nation that imports what it is capable of producing can never grow. And a time like this, nations of the world are hoarding their foodstuffs, because if they don’t hide what they have, how will they take care of their citizens?

‘‘Imagine about $10billion Nigeria spend every year to import food, imagine if all of those foods are produced in Nigeria. Imagine the agricultural sector that’s always the highest employer of labour in the world, was pulling five million Nigerians out of the labour market every year for the next 20 years,” said Tedheke, who advised that nations should take advantage of human and natural resources, particularly at times like this to boost the their GDP.

‘‘Every nation must develop and focus on what they have. Nigeria has land in abundance. At a moment like this, we must go back to the drawing board and reinforce our capacity to become even more productive. More challenges are going to be coming in the future, what are we going to do when they come? We have to pick a lesson from this and reflect and ask ourselves questions.

‘‘Like I always say, it is better for us to eat stones from what we produce so we can make the process better. Once you begin to invest massively in agriculture, you begin to industrialise. The lesson from this COVID-19 is investment in agriculture.

‘‘What should be done that has not be done right now is the time for government to put their money where it is supposed to be, for Nigeria to be able to produce enough food.

‘‘Two things need to happen; farmers should have access to cheap loans without the burden of looking for collateral. Now the farming season is here, what do you expect the farmers to do to be able to maximize their potentials?,” Tedheke queried.

On the presidential order to distribute 70,000mt of grains to Nigerians from the strategic nationa reserves to cushion the effects of the COVID-19 lockdown, Tedheke said that was not a solution in itself.

‘‘If you are opening your strategic grain reserve, you have to refill that grain reserve. I am saying this because 70,000 tons of grains is being given to Nigerians and if we don’t refill it, there will be food crisis. The government should make sure farmers have access to machineries, seedlings and finance.

‘‘We must also invest in technology of agriculture so that farmers can enhance in productivity. We also need the right policy that will support us this season. If we don’t get these, food yield is going to be very low. If nothing is done, a lot of farmers won’t be able to go for the wet season farming.

‘‘The farmers need seeds to plant right now, it also the time to support fertilizer blending so that the subsidy of fertilizer should be reduced to encourage farming,” added Tedheke.

A major challenge, however, is that the lockdown has not only affected the chain of food supply in most parts of the country despite bieng exempted as an essential service by the presidential directive, it is also taking toll on production.

‘‘We have been facing a lot of challenges due to the lockdown, although we did not expect the challenges since we are into food production. Today alone, we lost hundreds of birds due to unbearable security checkpoints. A journey of not more than 30 minutes’ drive from Abuja to Keffi after driving all the way from Ibadan, took two hours due to stop-and-check mounted by security personnel,” lamented Peter Ogbeide, a member of the Nigerian Farmers Group and Cooperative Society.

‘‘We received a total of 1,000 Turkeys and 1,000 broilers, but we lost hundreds and still counting.

‘‘This is a total loss for us. We don’t have the capacity to produce our own birds, yet we are not relying on government supporting us in order to diversify the economy, but the system keeps frustrating us. We are not saying security personnel should not do their job, but they must understand that long delays for food producers cannot stop COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria. We appreciate their efforts but we need space to carry out our daily activities to provide food for Nigerians.

‘‘We are also finding it difficult to supply rice to consumers due to this lockdown. One of our drivers even with his identity card, got frustrated and returned our rice back to us due to security excessive security checks on the road. If this keep happening, where will the motive to work come from? We need government intervention so as to meet the targeted food security,” he added.

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